A Winter of Frozen Pipes

2015/3/22 19:11

My mother moved to Baltimore City a few years ago. She bought a small row home in Hampden that saw a couple rehabs by previous owners. Her kitchen in particular impressed me a great deal. There's thick granite countertops; a massive five burner stove; a deep well sink. Oh, and every winter her pipes freeze.

In Baltimore this is not unique, especially after two straight winters that the temperatures sunk to record lows. Message boards were alive with desperate homeowners telling tales of burst pipes, and extended stints without water or without heat. I wondered if there was any commonality accounting for all these instances. Every case is unique, to be sure, many issues fully out of the homeowner's control (not much anyone can do when their exterior water meter freezes over) and a historically cold winter would tax infrastructure to its limits, but I keep circling back to my mother's kitchen.

When many buildings in the city were constructed, standard practice was to run plumbing against the uninsulated walls. This is the case in my house too, which is a century old but middle-aged by Baltimore standards. Thinking about this one may wonder if the original builders and architects were oblivious to winter at all. Why would a professional knowingly lay the pipes in a manner that was more likely to lead to freezing?

I believe they didn't.

By chance while channel surfing, I caught a brief bit of "Wait Until Dark" on TCM. The film is set in a period-correct mid-twentieth century Greenwich Village apartment. Here's a screenshot:

Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark, in front of some stylish cabinets

Now those are some cabinets designed for the city. The vents allow air to reach the pipes and bring them into the building envelope and get heated along with the rest of the living space. Such designs were common when most people lived in cities. It's a transitional piece, early homes often didn't cover plumbing at all. For instance this guy:

I doubt those pipes ever froze in winter, backed as they were by a radiator. This extends to the bathroom which also exposed as much plumbing as possible to the heated air:

Here's a generalization of how we got to here: the housing boom of the late twentieth century through the great recession brought a lot of investment into repairing urban housing stock. Many of whom came out of the suburbs where plumbing was laid against insulated spaces. At the same time Lowes and Home Depot became the go-to sources for building materials. They can't be faulted for following the money and stocking their shelves with cabinetry geared towards the suburb, thick wooden panels with magnetic clasps that create near-airtight seals.

Maybe consumer tastes shifted as well. Maybe these "breathable" options just failed the range of aesthetic tests: too old, too fragile, too hard to repaint, too hard to keep clean. But this shift misses how functional those old designs were. And besides it's not like the current solid-wood cocoons look any better. For one "solid wood" is increasingly rare, replaced by particleboard with authentic grain laminate. If you're like me you leave them wide open during the winter months anyway, which is about as aesthetically displeasing as you can get.

What I'd really like to see is some acknowledgement that urban and older homes can't play by the same rules as modern suburban houses and maybe just a shift back to appreciating their needs rather than playing by rules of tacky rehab.